When you glance at a map, Tennessee doesn’t seem so big, but did you know it takes over EIGHT HOURS to drive from corner to corner? Our borders stretch far, adding a deceptive amount of driving time to reach each corner – a not unsubstantial hurdle at quickly running through our State Park checklist.
Nashville is, fortunately, centrally located and an intersection point for many major interstates, but the spread of some of these parks is downright discouraging. It’s time to admit that, in regards to our exploration, not all parks will get their due. Two such are Warrior’s Path State Park and Seven Islands State Birding Park, destinations we strategically planned as stops on a lengthy roadtrip northeast for Christmas.
The seven-hour drive to Richmond, Virginia, was a daunting one for us – our first of significant distance with an ornery 14-month-old disapproving of car rides of any length. (The four-year-old, on the other hand, excels at long-distance drives and has since birth.) We packed lunches and planned stops, leaving nothing to chance or spontaneity.
WARRIORS’ PATH STATE PARK
Our outbound pit stop destination was Warriors’ Path State Park, located just off I-81, sixteen miles from the Tennessee-Virginia border. The park hugs Fort Patrick Henry Lake, a reservoir created by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the early 1950s. It has evolved into a recreational hub for residents of the nearby Tri-Cities (the region in Tennessee’s northeast corner that includes Kingsport, Johnson City, and Bristol).
Long before Europeans settled in the area, Native American nations had established an intricate network of trading routes throughout the whole north- and southeast. The Great Indian War and Trading Path (also known as the Seneca Trail) extended from the Alabama coast to upstate New York, branching off into local and alternate routes. Warriors’ Path is one such corridor, used by the Cherokee and Shawnee, to travel through the Cumberland Gap. From this history, the park, nestled on the shores of Fort Patrick Henry Lake, takes its name.
It was quiet on the December Wednesday of our visit. We stopped at the Visitor Center upon arrival – a small brick building at the park’s main entrance, encircled by an intersection of park roads. A bell jingled as we entered, but it took a second, post-restroom visit 10 minutes later to speak with anyone. (The building, also serving as the Park Office, was entirely filled with desks; perhaps the staff was on lunch break.) I know our visit was off-season, on a weekday during the winter, but I was still surprised to learn that Warriors’ Path regularly exceeds 2 million annual visitors and is one of the most visited parks each year.
It’s the waterfront location that draws crowds from the Tri-Cities region; it’s hard to ignore the outdoors in East Tennessee, where Appalachia is just outside the door. The park is just 950 square acres but packs in the recreational activities – an 18-hole golf course, disc golf, hiking trails, swimming pool (though as of 2022, it is closed permanently), nationally-recognized mountain biking trail system, equestrian trails, RV and primitive-site campgrounds, recreation lodge, Boundless playground complex, and year-round marina. The park is in the early stages of a $5 million renovation that will add a new RV campsite and new, larger marina.
On recommendation by the Park Office, we spent our short stopover on Duck Island where we lunched and explored its .7-mile paved loop path. The marina was quiet; nature was still; the park itself seemed to be in hibernation. Despite the day and hour, we shared the path with many other visitors also enjoying a sunny respite from the dreary chill of winter.
SEVEN ISLANDS STATE BIRDING PARK
The long drive home from a trip is never exciting, but I was excited to visit this unique park I had planned as a stop just 19 miles outside of Knoxville. Another thing about a roadtrip’s “return” leg: it always takes way longer than anticipated. We pulled into Seven Islands State Birding Park (much later than planned) in the late afternoon, nearly Golden Hour on a winter clock. It was a long, winding ride down rural roads after exiting the Interstate, but once we reached the park’s understated entrance, the parking lot was bustling. It seemed everyone else needed a leg stretch, as well.
Another park small in size (this one just 416 square acres), Seven Islands encompasses a peninsula of land at a bend in the French Broad River. It’s the state’s 56th and newest State Park, established in 2013, and, as hinted by its name, is a premier birding destination – over 200 species have been sighted at the park.
The park’s land was acquired with the intent to preserve the property as a wildlife sanctuary and refuge. Previously, it was home to a dairy farm, and since its acquisition in 2002, most of the fields have been converted back to native grasslands. It has become a popular spot for outdoor recreation but also serves as a “research and educational facility…and a demonstration area for land use and habitat management techniques.” The wildlife isn’t the only unique aspect of the park; the French Broad River is identified as one of the oldest rivers in the world, and it’s one of the few that flow north instead of south.
The sun was low as we passed the Bluebird Barn and ventured along the Bobwhite ADA Trail, a .9-mile one-way paved path that crosses the river and leads to the .7-mile Island Loop Trail. It’s one of the park’s two paved trails, the other being the 2.5-mile out-and-back Kelly Lane Greenway that passes the farm’s two houses and two other barns. The greenways also connect to the park’s five other hiking trails.
It’s easy to understand why this park was surprisingly busy; it’s a perfect, accessible destination for visitors of all mobility levels. As we followed the Bobwhite Trail, winding through the park’s rolling grasslands, we passed dogs on leashes as children on scooters jetted by. We reached the bridge crossing the French Broad River before turning around, pausing to observe the slow rush of the current before hightailing it back to the car in a race with the setting sun.
Date: December 2021
Count: 16 & 17 of 56
Must-See: At Warriors’ Path, don’t miss the Boundless playground, an amazing inclusive amenity that serves children of all physical and mental abilities. At Seven Islands, sign up for a ranger-led birding walk.
GETTING THERE: Both parks are located in East Tennessee, close to the Interstate. Warriors’ Path is about 4 hours from Nashville, following I-40 E to I-81 N towards Bristol. Take exit 59 towards Kingsport, and follow TN-36 N for 1 mile before turning right on Colonial Heights Road. Take another right onto Hemlock Road, and you’ll run into the Park Office. Seven Islands is 3 hours from Nashville, just outside Knoxville. Follow I-40 E to exit 402. Take a right onto Midway Road and follow 2 miles until a left turn/split onto Maples Road. When that ends, turn right onto Kodak Road and another left onto Kelly Lane which will end in the park’s main parking lot.
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